Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 March 2016
This book waited for a closure for way too long. It is a peculiar problem of writing on the present. With each passing moment one experiences a shift in perspective calling into question some assumptions which until yesterday seemed firm. New circumstances demand a somewhat reworked frame of analysis, inviting a ripple of changes in the ordering of ongoing events and arguments. In 2011, the historical rout of the democratic left government in West Bengal brought a three and half decades of unbroken saga to its close. This gave the book, work for which started in 2009, a point of arrival.
The present impasse of the democratic left was felt simultaneously on several fronts: electoral, organizational, and more importantly, ideational. Here we will trace the lineages of the crisis more particularly through the government of the Left Front, a coalition that the left managed to maintain for a record 34 years in West Bengal. The government, in the first decade of its existence, took some important legislative steps to provide social and economic security for the disadvantaged groups and to promote local democracy for curbing the influence of the bureaucracy.
In the early years the left evolved an art of conducting its government, which the book calls ‘government as practice’. It strategically combined top-down policies with the lived experience of different population groups. The art was perfected through popular movements and alliance-politics in the 1950s and the 1960s, which offered the backdrop for subsequent governmental projects of agrarian reforms and administrative decentralization in the late 1970s. This required a disciplined party and a complex structure of mass organizations for blending social democracy's ideological commitments with the everyday compulsions of postcolonial democracy. They helped the left consolidate its position among the rural and urban poor for an unprecedented duration.
However, the ‘success’ of the left in enlisting popular support also proved a bane, as its electoral triumphalism reproduced a stasis of predictability and famished its veins for infusing fresh ideas, so necessary to grapple with the contingencies of the ‘new’ economy in a rapidly transforming India. The gap proved costly, as the left failed to come up with an appropriate alternative to capital-led acquisition of farmlands, and faced a debilitating defeat with the alienation of its own constituency.